Thursday, September 2, 2010

Frugality and Textbooks

(Full disclosure:  I am currently director of education for a small college, and I have spent much of my career working in and studying higher education.  My experience necessarily informs and colors my thoughts.)

If your back to school season includes college classes for yourself or a family member, you may have experienced sticker shock at the bookstore.  Because of relatively small print runs, among other factors, textbooks will never be as cheap as the latest Dan Brown thriller.  Additionally, some publishing companies appear to have cracked open their own marketing textbooks long enough to embrace planned obsolescence, releasing a new edition every year, obsoleting the old edition (which was probably perfectly fine) and killing the used book market.  What is a student (or parent) to do?

Choose your courses wisely:  I would never advise a student to choose their courses based solely on book costs; an education, no matter how expensive, is a bargain in improvements in earnings power and quality of life.  However, if you are ambivalent about your choice of elective course, you might let textbook cost be the deciding factor.  If you are deciding between courses to fulfill your literature requirement, Survey of Shakespeare at 2:00 p.m. with a $200 textbook may not be as good a deal as Intro to Dante at 8:00 a.m. with a $35 copy of The Inferno.  Set your alarm and save a little money.

Buy used:  Many college book stores offer at least a few used textbooks to round out their stock.  Get to the store early and select used books that are as unmarked as possible.  However, don't hesitate to buy new if your only other option is a book so highlighted that you will never be able to process the information on your own.

Talk to your professors:  Professors often make book adoption decisions without thinking about the price the student will pay.  Even the most well-meaning prof is usually wanting to get the information in front of students in a convenient way, regardless of cost.  And price sensitivity is often blunted by the fact that these profs typically have stable careers and paychecks, making it easy to think of throwing another $20 book on the pile just for completeness.  Talk to your prof and ask his or her honest opinion on your book-buying decisions, including:
  1. Which of these books do you think I will want to keep after the course is over?  Does your answer change if this is not my major?  (Consider buying new or gently used copies of references in your field.)
  2. Can I share a book with someone else in class?  With someone in a different section?  (If the prof gives open book tests, you won't be able to share a text.  Otherwise, you and a friend or roommate may want to split the cost and share the book.)
  3. How much of each of these books do you use in class?  Is there one or more I could use from the library reserve? (Professors often put selected readings on reserve in the library, or sometimes these readings are available online.  If your prof has adopted a book for one or two readings, try to get by with the library copy or an online source.  Or, look for another book that has the reading; the Declaration of Independence doesn't change whether it is printed in a $120 history survey text or on the back of a freebie Fourth of July pamphlet from your state senator.)
Start a book fund:  You know that textbook purchases are coming each term, so save for them like you would a vacation or a special treat (yeah, I know, not the same).  Sell your aluminum cans and put the money in a jar.  Let family members know how much you would like a gift card to your college book store or online store of choice.

Shop around:  The internet makes it much easier to compare prices, and you should do this on textbooks.  Many university book stores will charge the suggested retail price for textbooks, while many online stores, lacking the expensive bricks and mortar overhead, will charge much closer to their own wholesale price from the publisher.   A few minutes checking prices (which you can do from your smart phone while standing in the college book store) could save you several dollars or more on each book.
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